December 1st, 2021, was a tragic day for residents of Gibson Flats as a fire swept across the area. The fire destroyed at least 11 homes, 11 garages, and numerous outbuildings and cars in the neighborhood that adjoins the southeast side of Great Falls. While there were no reports of human injuries or fatalities, it's a day that residents and first responders will never forget.
Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Jeremy Jones recalled, "When I got notified by dispatch, our department was what we call an 'all-call or third alarm,' which is basically all off-duty personnel were requested to come back to work. I wasn’t given a lot of details besides we had a fast-moving wildfire south of town, moving towards city limits, but knowing that we had an all-call in place, which doesn’t happen very often, kind of made us realize we had a significant event unfolding."
Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said the fact that no human lives were lost is a "complete miracle."
Jones concurred with the Sheriff's statement.
"Due to how dry it was at that time of year, the winds we were having that night, and the length of the flame head, the Sheriff is absolutely right," he said. "The fact that we did not lose anyone through this fire was a miracle, especially given the time of early morning, when everyone is typically in bed. That’s thankful to the neighbors. I think that community banded together, they were able to notify each other and got people out. The first due being the Sand Coulee Fire Department and their initial attack, knowing that they needed a ton of help. They initiated in our county what we call 'mutual aid,' and we had every department in this county responding to that scene, working together. We had no water out there, so we had to establish water shell operations, and work together to come up with an incident plan to try to mitigate the event."
The Sand Coulee Fire Department was recognized by Governor Greg Gianforte with the 'Spirit of Montana' award last February for their life-saving work.
The rural volunteer fire departments played a major role in mitigating the fire that early morning.
Belt Fire Chief Travis Johnson recalled the incident.
Johnson said, "The morning of the fire, Belt sent trucks to Denton earlier before this fire, so there was a lot of quick decisions that had to be made so we don't leave our own constituents unprotected, but we need to help out everybody that comes and helps us too. We sent a couple trucks to Denton a couple hours earlier before the Gibson Flats, and then Belt sent the rest of our fleet to Gibson Flats. Sand Coulee's district, we reported to them, and immediately started on the grass fires that were threatening structures."
Travis Johnson has served for the Belt Rural Fire District for more than 27 years, making him the longest active service member in the Belt community. He said he has never seen a fire such as this.
"As far as a wind-driven fire, it was definitely awful conditions," he said. "It was dry, middle of the night, three in the morning, and not real familiar territory for me. There was a lot of extra things that we didn't see coming such as fences, access. It was choppy out there, and just trying to gain access to the fire. It seemed like everything was trying to slow us down."
Johnson also acknowledged the challenges that go with being a volunteer firefighter in a rural community, adding that there's always uncertainty as to how many people are available and the equipment that is needed.
A challenge for the firefighters - but for residents, the struggle to rebuild continues.
Greg Mackenstadt is a resident that lost their four-year-old family home from the fire. He was on his way home from work, when he received a call from a neighbor telling him there was a fire behind his house.Mackenstadt said, "I hurried home and got here. The fire was close to my house, so I started moving vehicles as fast as I can. They (first responders) tried to keep me out, but I kept coming back, trying to get my vehicles and minimize the damage if it got to our house."
Mackenstadt said in the process of moving his vehicles to a safe spot, he was able to save five vehicles, while losing 13.
"My last trip to get my new pickup, I noticed the truck was on fire, and the house was on fire as well, so I moved back and there was no firemen close by. Little did I know there was one behind my house trying to stop it, but I couldn't see him because the flames and smoke were so bad. After that, we rallied at the Roberts Bates Store, and waited for the sun to come up to see what we had. The fire was still going, but it was burnt out by seven to eight in the morning."
The Mackenstadts didn't lose their faith. They received permits on November 15th to rebuild their house in the same exact location as the one that burned down.
"We're trying to keep our home the same as it was," he said. "I think we are the only ones in Gibson Flats that are totally rebuilding. Of the houses that burned down, two of them are ours."
Greg's son lost his mobile home next door in the fire, but a new building was put in place in that same exact spot. Greg said it's used for storage space as of right now.
While the Mackenstadts are off to a late start due to the permit process, they are aiming to have their new house by Christmas."
Mackenstadt also credited the first responders that took part in mitigating the fire.
Chief Jones said the rural fire departments were a major reason there were so injuries or casualties.
Jones said, "It doesn’t matter if you’re volunteer, or career department. Nobody has the staffing to handle what the people faced that night, and being able to work together, that’s really what has led us to come together and try to develop a training center that we’re bringing to the state this year.”
Responding agencies included
- Vaughn Fire
- Sand Coulee Fire
- Gore Hill Fire
- Belt Rural Fire
- Black Eagle Fire
- Malmstrom AFB
- Montana Air National Guard
- Great Falls Fire Rescue
- Cascade County Sheriff's Office
- Great Falls Police Department
- Northwestern Energy
- Salvation Army (Sally One)
Families that lost their homes from the fire said the memories of what happened on December 1st won't be forgotten, as some continue their path towards finding a new home.
Jesse Slaughter said, "I don't know if anybody who loses their home can be made whole again. There's a lot of memories, there's a lot of irreplaceable items. Pictures, photographs, family memorabilia, things like that that can never be made whole again. There's no amount of money in the world that can make these people feel, probably, whole. It's really sad.”
Despite the loss and tragedy, residents and first responders acknowledged the fact that the fire could've resulted in much worse, expressing each other's gratefulness in the efforts used to mitigate the fire.
The three people charged in connection with the fire - Brandon Cordell Bennett, Jr., Jevin James Mclean, and Galvinn Coates Munson - all pleaded guilty in September 2022 and said they take responsibility for what happened, and that they realize the further damage that could've occurred. They are awaiting sentencing.